The Outing to Catafalque

 

                                                                       ...A Ghost Story by Inferno 

 

 

     “Be careful where you go today, Marion. There are many lonely weather beaten paths here in the backwoods of Louisiana. It is an easier thing than one might think to lose ones way,” Johnathan shouted from the front portico of his stately home. “Maybe I should go with you, but with all this work here”, the young lawyer said, “I don’t see how I can, honestly…"

 

He walked toward the edge of the porch and leaned his tall languid frame against the ivy-covered trellis. He tried very hard not to sound like he was nagging her too much…but, he was failing miserably in the attempt. “Did you remember to take the pills the Doctor gave you? Do you have them with you?” Johnathan droned on and on, “What about a blanket …do you see it? I put one in the carriage for you."
    "Be back before the sun sets, Marion. We have a dinner guest this evening, an old schoolmate of mine. I’ve arranged for him to make your acquaintance. G. L Crabtree, you remember? I’ve told you all about him.” 
   “Poulka, mind your mistress, don’t let her tarry too long.” 


    The stately Morgan was fifteen hands high. Poulka was the color of freshly made caramel and had a mane of deep chocolate brown. The horse lifted his head and champed at the gravel on the ground in front of the Carriage House with his powerful front legs, showing everyone his impatience with his master. Marion, who was at Poulka’s side, making the final adjustments to his fittings was chuckling softly and shaking her head as though she was sharing a quiet joke between the horse and herself.
    “Don’t fuss so, darling, we’ll soon start our outing.” She soothed, “Your master just can’t help himself… he’s been this way for years and we can’t change him now, can we?” Marion crooned softly against the Morgan's muzzle. 
    The tall young man watched pensively as the beautiful woman smiled broadly from under the brim of her new sapphire blue silk bonnet, she adored "vintage" apparel and while it was almost fifty years out of date; she wore it proudly as though it were the latest fashion from Paris for it was a gift from Johnathan. He had searched for it for weeks and finally found it in a small haberdashery while on business in Charleston that summer. She winked saucily at him as she climbed into the carriage and readied Poulka’s reins. 


    “I just adore my new bonnet, Johnathan!” she exclaimed brightly. “Do you think it suits me? Do you think Mr. Crabtree will like it? Maybe if you’re a good boy, dear, sweet Johnathan, he’ll bring you a present, like the silver flask my father gave me… I know you’ve always wanted one.” She trilled lightly.
     His cousin, Marion, had come from New York for an extended visit, and although being in possession of quite fragile health, what she lacked in vigor regarding her condition, she more than made up for it with her shear tenacity and verve. 
    “Most definitely, Cuz, I could think of no one prettier to wear it. Flask? What flask …why proper young ladies never carry flasks. “ He teased. “Besides, the flask I want is the one that George has, a silver double spouted flagon with The Crest of Cambridge engraved on it.

 

 As long as we’ve been acquainted with each other, he has always carried it… since our University days. I’ve never known him to be without that flask. Maybe later on tonight, after you retire, of course..."
    "Oh... of course" Marion innocently interjected, though her mouth was twitching for she was trying her best not to laugh right out loud at him.
    "As I was saying," he continued, ignoring her comment, "Maybe later on, we'll play a hand or two of poker... I just might win it from him tonight."
    "You just might lose this house to him tonight, if you play your cards the way you play them with me!" she mimicked his smug demeanor with an affected Louisiana low country drawl perfectly; note for note, as only a relative could. Johnathan knew that she was right too; he was pitiful at playing cards, though he loved the game. There was a silence. But when their eyes met, they both burst out with such a laugh that Poulka turned his head around in their direction and whinnied as if to join in with their joke. 


     Johnathan's eyes were twinkling with merriment as he smiled fondly at his cousin and he instantly recounted in his mind the many wonderful adventures they had experienced together when they were younger…years ago… before her illness…before the change.
    She had been sent to him a year ago by her father, the late Senator Charles Smythe MacKenna, his uncle, for the warmer climate of Louisiana. But really, it was most certainly to watch over her convalescence. "Marion Elisabeth MacKenna" had proven to be a handful since the day she born. Willful and stubborn to a fault; she had been her father's pride and joy and Johnathan's favorite cousin. Born into a large prominent family of five children, Marion was the youngest child and only girl. Her mother, "Elisabeth Ann" had died giving her life twenty-four years earlier. And being the image of her mother made her ever-mournful father dote on her until his sudden death this past Christmas. She was unfortunately now the only surviving member of her family. Her four older brothers had met their demise at the Battle of San Juan Hill five years ago. They were part of Roosevelt’s "Roughriders", and although they had fought valiantly, they did so most fatally. The Senator had entrusted her welfare to Johnathan and he did not take that lightly. Her illness had weakened her; there was no mistaking that. 


    Yet, there was something else, something that even Johnathan, as close as he was to her just couldn't put his finger on. It was as if the "fight" had gone out of her... as though her very spirit had been crushed. Now, one could surmise that with her whole family wiped out, no wonder the poor girl was depressed, but they didn’t know Marion the way Johnathan did. Oh, there were moments such as the one, which had just transpired, where one could still catch a glimpse of that "fire of life" that she had been in possession of. Yet, Johnathan could not help but notice that those glimpses were getting to be fewer and farther in between. He never quite understood how a young woman with Marion's stunning beauty was still unmarried. She had plenty of suitors, she never lacked charm or grace, but he suspected that for years the plethora of available bachelors who appeared at her doorstep just plain bored the tears off of her. Johnathan shrugged emitting a long tired sigh. It was up to him, now. 
    The Senator had been sickly that year before he died, and on his deathbed he made Johnathan swear that he'd take care of her and find her "soul mate" like his wife was to him all those years ago. He had wanted to see his daughter married before he died.  But now, that wouldn't be possible. The young lawyer felt that it was his duty to help her find her way back...and he fervently hoped that George would be the one to help him achieve that end.   
      
“Crabtree will most assuredly prove to be a good diversion for her if nothing else.” Johnathan surmised. "George L Crabtree", a Barrister who lived in Edinburgh, was a long time friend of Johnathan's. They had become life long cronies ten years ago when they were both attending Eaton. George had never married either...never found the right woman. Johnathan recalled something that his friend had once said to him, "Aye, Laddie, I haven't found anyone yet that I like better then myself." Johnathan thought how much his old school mate and Marion were alike in this respect. He had tried to get them together once, but life being the way it is sometimes, it just didn't work out the way he planned it. 


    Three summers ago when Johnathan had escorted his cousin on holiday to the countryside of The Clyde in Scotland, they had all met briefly one night at a dinner party given upon the honor of her birthday. George had truly been taken with Marion's lively grace and quick wit, though as usual, she hardly gave him a second glance... Johnathan thought that maybe with the right circumstances and timing she might grow to appreciate George's charm and style. In all the world they were indeed Johnathan's two closest and dearest friends, what better than to try and bring them together. "It would be absolutely grand to see them make some sort of a life together..." he mused to himself. "Some how, I'll make it work."

 “She will be…all right,” he stoically thought to himself as Poulka strained forward and the wheels of the carriage turned, moving the precious cargo on its way. Besides, an outing in the crisp autumn air was just the thing to put back some of the bloom, which had so noticeably paled from his dear cousin’s cheek. Marion was wonderful with horses and an expert driver. She and Poulka trotted across the freshly cut grass onto the circular pathway and then stopped suddenly under the large Magnolia tree in the center of the front lawn. The sun shone brilliantly that afternoon even though it was already three o’clock. Johnathan noticed an odd iridescent shimmer, which filtered down through the heavy branches and thick foliage of the tree so tall that it did not block the view of his charming cousin. The light illuminated Marion and danced upon her as freely as fireflies at twilight. He blinked his eyes hard and the peculiar glow was gone as though it had never been. 


    Marion lifted her petite-gloved hand to her pale alabaster face and blew him a kiss bidding him a final goodbye. As he waved back, he could swear he saw (if only for an instant) a strange shadow form across the young woman’s body as though it were a photograph that had been double exposed. He noticed it more plainly, not without some alarm as she bent down to once again pick up the reins of his beloved horse, Poulka. For each action she made, so this strange visage seemed to follow her every movement. It was un-nerving.
     He shook his head and rubbed his eyes. Yet, as he glanced back while his pretty relative was riding off that mid-October day, up and over the hill, out of sight… out of his protection, he was positive that he could clearly discern the outline of another. For that moment, it was as though she was not alone. 
“Bah! Get hold of yourself, man. I must remember to make an appointment to get new spectacles,” he thought as he rubbed his eyes again, hoping that this unnerving “double” was only really in his mind’s eye and no where else.

 

 “Free at last!” she thought 10 minutes into her ride. “We’re finally on our way.” The air was crisp on that late October afternoon; the sky a brilliant azure and the smell of burning leaves and pumpkin pie that drifted on the prevailing winds, filled the air with long forgotten memories of the comforts of the young woman’s childhood. She had been quite robust as a child, always the first one out the door and “up the tree” so to speak. She lived for the words, “I Double Dog Dare you, Marion!” (A particular favorite of her cousin Johnathan, at whose home she now resided.) She often not only matched those dares, but also sent them back in triplicate to the poor man. Yes, there was a time when she was indeed fearless and intrepid.
    Things change however, and the change came for Marion two winters ago when she fell ill and was racked with Scarlet Fever. She came through it all right but not without some damage. Her heart was now weak. The Doctor had given her pills and a certain "tonic" for that and as long as she remembered to take them and rest herself often enough; she would be fine. “Fine but delicate…delicate but frail…frail but… Oh, enough!” she admonished herself. “Not today…” she said aloud for all to hear. (Well, to those who were listening, anyway), “Today is too glorious to think on such miserable things. I feel wonderful…really, better than I’ve felt since I was a child…”she said to Poulka as she rubbed her left arm absently.
     But she was no longer a child. She was now a young woman and "tree climbing" was about the furthest thing from her mind at the moment.        
  “Interesting, that Johnathan has not caught wise to my little secret…”she mused. "He had gone to such lengths to convince George to come for a visit..." she giggled in spite of herself. "…to arrange an introductionHa!" She exclaimed out loud. "...As though I needed one." she thought.  She remembered all too well the ruggedly handsome Scot, who was known as George L Crabtree at a large formal dinner party given in her honor at the MacKenna's ancestral home: "Brightwater Manor" just outside of Edinburgh, a little over three years ago. 

 They did converse in a few  pleasantries and began to exchange letters. Over the course of a few months, their relationship began to develop, but when Marion’s condition became severe she stopped writing and they soon lost touch with one another.
How deliciously interesting it would be tonight when she became re-acquainted with the rakish and captivating Scot once again, she could not wait to see the looks on both of their faces. “Perhaps the flames began as warm embers could smolder and be coaxed into a blaze once again,” she contemplated. “Ah…me, maybe too much time has already floated by and my chance for happiness lost; more likely," she sighed.  Although the wind was becoming quite brisk as Poulka cantered on at his lively pace, she felt a noticeably warm breeze against her cheek.

  


     Marion’s carriage ride took her over hill and dale through the lush backcountry known as “Natchitoches Parish” in Louisiana. A wondrous and magical place of twisted passageways where knarled towering Cypress and Magnolia trees cosseted in Spanish moss flanked both sides of the narrow roads. Encroaching on her, covering Marion’s carriage quietly as a tomb. Enticingly comforting for some like her, yet seemingly to lie in wait for others. She loved the feeling she got when traversing these small dirt roads. On and on throughout the afternoon they traveled.


    For some reason she really could not explain to herself or to Poulka for that matter, she insisted on stopping for a short while just after a fork on one of the smaller paths. She vaguely recalled that this might be the way to “Moon Hollow Lake”, a place, which she and Johnathan occasionally came for picnics and relaxation.  There was a small forgotten cemetery, a graveyard really.

 Overgrown and forlorn, she pulled the carriage up and climbed out to water Poulka and take some refreshment for herself. “I don’t recall ever seeing this place here.” She muttered eyeing the expanse of the vistas before her. Marion’s arm was twingeing slightly as she rummaged through her hamper for the flagon she always had with her.  It was a small silver flask her father had given her for emergencies. Now most ladies carried similar small flasks, which usually held either brandy or a diluted tincture of laudanum, for medicinal purposes, mind you, that women in high button shoes and corsets might be air too. But not Marion, no not she. Marion preferred her father’s single malt whiskey to anything else as her “cure-all” for everything.
    She located the flagon and took a long slow sip, and then another. " Hmmm, that's it done, I'll have to remember to refill it when we get back, won’t I?" she said. “Don’t look at me like that,” she told the horse. “Even proper ladies do many things when there’s no one around to watch.” But the Morgan only looked at the carriage and snorted as he gazed back at Marion. She shrugged her shoulders at him and began to walk through the meadow, which ran along side the old burial place.
      “Such a peaceful place…”she said. “If I have to one day die and be buried somewhere, I shouldn’t mind spending the rest of eternity here,” Marion said out loud to no one in particular. She ran her gloved fingers lightly along the small iron fence as she strolled along. She wandered up through the vibrantly flower filled meadow until she was just a few feet from the back of the small graveyard’s gate. From this vantage point Marion had a an unobstructed view of Moon Hollow Lake in all it’s glittering beauty as the sun, now a brilliant vermilion hung low in the sky.
    “How absolutely breathtaking!” she declared.
    “You’re not so bad, really.” she spoke out loud to the small forlorn cemetery. “Just forgotten…with a little help, you could be exceptional.” She smiled and chuckled to herself, “Wonderful, Marion…now your speaking to graveyards…your lunacy knows no bounds!”
    “Still…”she thought, scanning the old cemetery and resting her eyes on a beautiful Weeping Willow whose branches reached the ground.  “I wonder if the Ladies Historical Society knows about this place. They must, being so close to the lake and all… but it’s never been mentioned at any of the luncheons I’ve attended. I wonder why…” She looked back again at the small enclosure, “It must be a family plot from the last century, how sad not to be remembered…”
 Almost at once, Marion straighten and tightened her kid riding gloves, “Right! Well no time like the present, at least I can make a start of it.” She made a mental note to announce her “find” at the very next meeting she attended. She began to gather a large armful of wild flowers and walked around to the front and entered inside the rusted iron gate. Carefully, Marion divided the flowers so that each plot would have something to show. so that their memory was not entirely forgotten by the present world. She brushed the twigs and brambles as best she could from each of the graves.  And placing a small nosegay at the base of each marker, she tried to read some of their names, but they were careworn and illegible for the most part and she realized that she could only read pieces of them. “F____y__o___er” was one;” G__s__t ____dy” was another. As she walked throughout the final resting place for these seemingly lost souls she found one whose stone was broken in half as though lightening had struck it. Only one word was decipherable: “James" it simply said.
    The rest were unreadable but there was one in the back, partially under the overgrown Weeping Willow. It was a large black marble headstone, which could easily have covered two plots. Curious, as this one had such a different look to it, and especially because it faced in the opposite direction from the others, Marion drew nearer. The Tombstone was overlooking the iron gate toward the magnificent view of the lake; she came around the left side of it, opposite the tree.  Marion faced the marker. She could see that the tree covered the left side. The right side surprisingly had a grave, which had been newly filled in. But it wasn’t until she drew nearer that the shock of it nearly knocked her off her feet, for the massive headstone was inscribed on the right side with the name: George L Crabtree.  “It can’t be!” she thought, “It must be a coincidence.” Marion tried her best to regain her composure but she was still shaking as she knelt down and gently placed the largest bouquet on the grave. “Just in case.” she mused matter-of-factly. The small grin left her lips as again she felt something warm brush against her cheek. Marion could swear that she heard a low deep sigh, close as though someone was whispering in her ear. But it might have been the wind.    
A twig snapped behind her and to her left. A gust of wind blew across the grave and moved back the branches of the Willow tree in the opposite direction. Rising up quickly, she saw yet another sight which gave her some alarm. Someone had been preparing a new grave just to the left of this one, all precise and nicely dug matching exactly width for width and length for length. The grave itself was opened and empty. The Memorial was blank on the left hand side but near the bottom and in the center of it she could read the epitaph: 

Time nor Seas shall ne part us again,
 My Love…
Together as One; so shall we slumber
For all eternity

 "How odd, I don't recall this being here a moment ago... How could I have missed this?" she thought. 
    This sepulchral opening in the earth before her, shocked her more than she was willing to admit, for it was in such close proximity to the freshly covered grave, that it gave her the impression of a large double bed. A bed whose one half was already occupied and seemed to Marion as though its owner was awaiting the other half's internment to complete him; to cover his partner with the timeless blanket of the soft warm earth in anticipation of their perpetual sleep with one accord throughout perpetuity. 
    Marion began to feel lightheaded and quickly sat down on a small stone bench which was situated in front of these two somber pallets and thought for while about the man who lay cold and still in the grave before her and if he was the same man who was supposed to have been coming to dinner that night. She wondered if for a moment if indeed "this George" and "her George" were one and the same person. But that couldn't be, it just didn't make any sense. Who was the other grave for? She sat and contemplated over this thought for a while, her eyes riveted to the inscription upon the smooth marble. 

    "...I've read this read this before... but where?" she searched her mind, but no memory of it came. "That phrase is so familiar, so haunting, whoever rests along side him, shall surely stay in eternal slumber with the comfort of this man's love..." Another soft warm breeze ruffled her skirts and she stood as though renewed by it. 
  
  “If you are he, Sir, then I truly wish with all my heart that we did not lose track of ourselves and wish with all my heart that I could have come to know as you had wanted. Perhaps things might have been different, and your fate would have taken another path.”  She said with all true sincerity as she wiped a tear from her eye. Marion began to reflect fully as she massaged her left arm and the wind gave out a low moan as it whispered through the Willow. 

 

 

    Rested but still restless, she climbed back up into the carriage and road further on toward the still crystal waters of the lake until the sun began to set. For Marion, time stood still. She could not erase the words of the “epitaph” from her mind. They sounded familiar to her, as though she had heard them before. But, where? It was twilight and an early moon was rising along with a few twinkling stars as they began to stitch a shroud for the once brilliant sun, which now glowed crimson and dying on the horizon of Moon Hollow Lake. It was breathtaking. She sighed a heavy sigh, pulled on the reins and bid Poulka turn the carriage around to begin the long journey homeward. As with all things, the night shows different views and it wasn’t before too long when she realized that she was hopelessly lost.
     She was very tired and noticed that the odd twinge in her left arm was growing stronger, She reached once again into her hamper for her flask but it was nowhere to be found. “Ah, just as well.” She thought. It was empty now anyway and could offer no useful purpose to quiet the pain. She would find it later. The pain had started just after she had tugged on the reins in front of Johnathan’s estate under the Magnolia tree, but thought little of it. She was left-handed, and Poulka being the strong Morgan horse that he was, often jerked back at Marion. It seemed as though the horse loved pulling her along as though he had more knowledge of navigation than she ever could, and often plaintively neighed and snorted at her as if to remind her of that very fact. An hour or more had passed before they finally found the main road. 
    The sun had set fully and the narrow lane was bathed in the glow of the pale silver moonlight. As she drove onward, Marion knew she needed to stop and rest. She was not feeling right and she was painfully aware that it was well past time for her medication. But she needed water with which to accomplish that small task and she had given the last of it to Poulka when they had rested earlier near the small disconsolate and abandoned cemetery. There were no homesteads as far as the eye could see in either direction and with the exception of her horse, no other traveler upon the road that evening. There was nothing else to do but ramble on homeward…ever homeward.


    They turned south on what Marion thought was the main lane but after a short while they passed the old graveyard once more. But this time looking up ahead, Marion noticed a fork in the road. The wind began to howl somewhere off in the distance. “I didn’t notice that path this afternoon when we where here, let’s take it, Poulka, perhaps there’s a home, which can provide us with some rest. “ But Poulka didn’t move. He stood fast on the road, his ears pricked forward as though he didn’t like where she was choosing to go. “Poulka, stop this, Johnathan said you were to mind me. Now, please, for pity’s sake, let’s get going… I fear I’m in need of some help.” She jerked hard on the reins and Poulka acquiesced to her demands. The carriage once again began to move.
   They turned up towards the lee of the fork. Marion could see a large imposing form looming in the darkness through the Spanish moss as Poulka carried her on into the night, toward the source of the wind’s lament. Imagine her surprise when she spied a large wrought iron gate completely entwined with Creeping Ivy and Wisteria through the heavy foliage of the moonlit road. As she drew the carriage nearer, she could clearly read the name, which was woven into the fabric of the iron entryway. “Catafalque” it read in beautifully scripted filigree work. “Catafalque” she read aloud…and the center of the gate groaned as it parted and slowly opened for her, while the wind once more serenaded Marion with its sorrowful low moan.
     She clicked her tongue at Poulka. They drove through the gate’s opened portal and found themselves on a wide graveled pathway. She could see the building up ahead of her. Built almost like a fortress in shimmering gray fieldstone (or at least, that’s what the moonlight told her) and almost totally covered in the same Climbing Ivy and fragrant Wisteria.   "How magnificent, but I’m sure this was not here before.” she thought, as Marion parked her carriage and set foot alight. The strong Morgan became skittish and nickered at her as she tied the reins to a low branch from a decaying oak tree. 
    “Hush now, Poulka!” she soothed. “It will be all right. See? There’s a light in the glass-domed room there on the side on the house. It’s probably a Conservatory or something.” The horse nuzzled her neck as if trying to dissuade her from leaving him. “We’ll get some water and be on our way, I promise.” Marion patted him on his withers and began to move toward the massive structure.
 
   Footsteps purposeful and dreary could be heard as Marion navigated the brambles and dried oak leaves strewn along the wind swept trodden path. But, they were not hers...Whose then? She turned but saw no one. The gusts of wind picked at her bonnet as the silken ribbons that secured it about her lovely neck came undone. The strange glow from the night sky above, cast its eerie shadows upon the lawn and front gardens as she found her way upon the walk. She watched mesmerized as small zephyrs played with the dead leaves and coaxed them into their dance.


    Objects common to all in the light of day take on new meaning after the sun sets, or so she had been told, …after the moon rises and swathes them with its haunting pallor...after the wind whispers and gives them a voice.  As Marion clambered her way up onto the columned veranda still ladened with vines and thorned roses of the past, a strong blast of the moaning wind caught the brim of her cousin’s gift and off it flew into the darkness. Dusty moonbeams frolicking with it, carrying the bonnet with them as it rode the night sky. The pain in her arm was now traveling inward; she could scarcely catch her breath. ...And timidly knocked upon the old oaken door.
"tap ... tap ... tap..."
…But no one answered.
Marion knocked once more, louder this time,
"Rap ... Rap ... Rap..." 
 She listened ... and heard no sound from within, no rustle of clothing nor clicking of heels as one might hear from the other side when you’re on the outside of the door. Only the mournful cry of a lonely raven as it circled the chimney. Winging it’s way homeward to its lair, bringing food to its young... or was it?
"RAp ... RAp... RAp! 
    Louder still, for now the wind had called up its powerful gales. She could see the black swirling clouds of a mighty storm approaching...ever approaching. As the first crash of lightening illuminated the lawn, Marion stared open mouthed, as it seemed that the garden statuary had come to life...”No, no that just isn't possible..”, she thought. But there were eyes that told her differently as their brilliant amber glow seemed to slice right through to her very soul. Poor, pitiful Marion they seemed to say…
"RAP ... RAP... RAP!!!
Marion banged on the heavy door.
    "Pleeease let me..." Her voice was cut off in near mid sentence, as the violent explosion of thunder seemed to trigger the old Oaken Door. And slowly, painfully it swung its way open and Marion entered Catafalque. The large foyer with its tall eye brow windows on either side of the entry door were void of draperies, allowing the moonlight in all its silvery gleam to offer its pallid light for her as she advanced into the main hallway.  The walls were ensconced with ruby patterned damask and a wide circular rosewood staircase led the way up to the hallways above and parts unknown.  As Marion cast her eyes down the length of the corridor, she could make out a gallery of what seemed to be a large collection of portraits, which graced both sides of the walls. As the moonlight shone upon these, it was as though the eyes of each of these "unknowns" followed her as she made her way along the soft carpet.     
     "What a place is here, truly stunning in all its ethereal splendor." whispered Marion aloud.
    “Have ye come hunting Ghosts, Lassie? Then properly warned ye be, says I....” replied a corporeal voice.
     "Who’s ... there?" Marion shuddered as once again she felt the familiar warmth upon her cheek as though someone had touched her.   
      “Is somebody here?” she stammered.
    But again there was no answer, only a soft deep chuckle and the tinkling melody in a mournfully minor key from an old music box, playing in the vestibule. Now, music boxes have always been a particularly grave fear of Marion’s…though tiny and seemingly harmless …SHE knew better…. for she KNEW just what they could do to a person, if you let them. (But that, after all, is another ghost story...)  
    Marion sidled up against the far wall, furthest from the pulsating box as she traveled along the hall. Another lightening crash filled the room with a pale blue brilliance and she saw in that horrifying instant a beautifully delicate presence dressed in a long white receiving gown as transparent as gauze, beckoning her follow. Marion breathed deeply for her lungs were becoming agonizingly constricted and she remembered her pills were still in the carriage just inside the iron gate. The terrified young woman noticed that the room had become overpowered with the scent of fresh lavender. Marion's heart began to pound in her throat, and she trembled as she realized that the room was growing bitterly cold. She could distinctly see her own breath in front of her as she trembled and exhaled slowly.  She was painfully aware that her breathing was becoming increasingly more and more labored as she clutched at the shooting pain in her left arm.
    “I’m so cold…so very cold”, she said to herself as frost lingered on her every word.
    “Don’t fret so, my dear! You’ll only make things harder in the long run.” a kindly voice rang in her ears. Different from the first voice she heard.  Marion wasn't sure but she could swear that it emanated from the ghostly apparition standing sentry in the doorway.
    “What… is… this… place…?” Marion haltingly asked. She concentrated on each and every word as if in an effort to comprehend them.
    “Why, it’s our Conservatory and soon to be yours, I might add…” replied the disembodied voice calmly. 
    Marion not being able to move stood frozen, her feet riveted to the floor as her knees began to buckle. Her mind was racing and then, suddenly the pain was as a white-hot knife, which pierced straight through her to where her heart used to live. Bit by bit with eyes wide opened in a gruesome stare; her legs finally gave way as she slumped against the hallway wall and slid slowly towards the floor as Marion felt her life ebb away from her; further and further as sure as evening tides wash out to sea.
    “I…c-ca-can’t m-m-move!”
    “You don’t have too…”
 To her astonishment… and dread, the doorway to the Conservatory began to move backward and forward as though it were breathing like a living being... As though the house had awakened from its turbulent and unrestful sleep and taken on a life all its own! It crept along the hallway with a slitheringly creaking sound…ever growing in size as it drew itself nearer and nearer until it swallowed her whole. She shut her eyes in abject terror and screamed.  

 

 

 Johanthan began his pacing as the clock in the hall rang out five chimes. “Where the devil can she be? The wind is picking up. There’s surely a storm coming.”  He must have gone to the door at least a hundred times. By six o'clock, he hadn't even noticed that his dinner guest had still not appeared. He tried to read his newspaper to distract himself. As he sat in his massive leather reading chair in his study, Johnathan moodily flipped through the day's evening paper. He would be sure to give his spirited cousin a stern lecture when she returned. The pages crackled stiffly as he turned them. But all thoughts of angst and worry reared their sickening heads once again as his eyes skimmed through the columns and came to rest on a small yet disturbing byline on page six:

Mayor's Daughter Still Listed As Missing After One Year
Tuesday 20th October, 1903
The Mayor, Austin J Godrother and his family are still rather quite distraught over the apparent disappearance of his 20year old daughter "Frances" better known as "Fanny" to her close companions. Miss Godrother had vanished without a trace last October and has been absent for nearly a year, having taken an outing on "All Hallows Eve" afternoon with a friend for the purpose of enjoying a picnic lunch on the banks of Moon Hollow Lake. She was to attend the Town's 25th annual  "Harvest Jubilee Costume Ball" but never made her appearance that night. It is suspected that the friend, one "Mr. James T Bacrondie" who worked in the mayoral treasury offices may have carried her off as well as $ 24,000.00 from the city coffers, which are also listed as unaccounted for still today. It seems that the circumstances of her absence is not unlike those who have vanished without a trace while planning an outing to Moon Hollow Lake for the past 10 years now, every year during the month of October. Just as it happened two years before in 1901 when our Town Librarian, the spinster, Gladys Hardsletdy, evanesced most curiously as if into thin air on October 12th, 1901 at the Presbyterian Church Harvest Fair which had been held at the Lake. A full investigation has been turned over to the Pinkerton Agency for evaluation and hopefully the criminal or criminals involved will soon be brought to justice.
J J Crowhurst 

  Johnathan stopped cold. There was something familiar about the article, deadly familiar... but what?  The month... the past 10 years? The dates? He threw the newspaper on the floor and stood, his hand to his temples as a wave of nausea encompassed him. 
 
   "No! It can't be true...Not in this day and age!"
     "But it can be true, and you know it can be or have you forgotten about the Music Box?" a small snickering voice said quietly in his mind. He rubbed his eyes hard and went immediately to his desk and began recklessly searching through his documents, papers and books until he found what he was looking for. His ten-year leather bound diary that Marion had given him for Christmas years ago. Ten years ago in fact. He ripped open the lock that held its secret... The diary had preprinted dates on each of the pages. One page for each date since January 1893, The pages were labeled with the corresponding date of the year, day of the week and at the bottom of the page he saw what he knew he was searching for: The cycles of the Moon. The color drained from his face as he realized what was happening.  He heard the chiming of the Grandfather clock in the main hall outside his study. It was now seven o'clock and still no sign of Marion. 
    He was frantic and told the servants to wait dinner and when Mr. Crabtree arrived, to offer his apologies and make him comfortable. He had to find his dear cousin before it was too late... before the darkness came ...before moon rose. 
    The images of what he had witnessed earlier in the day had come flooding back to him… the laughter and quick repartee that he and Marion had always enjoyed, she was more than just a relative come to visit … she was in truth his life's blood…his “sister.” 
    “If anything has happened to her…” he stopped short at thoughts that he could not think on, for not just the happy memories of the day came back. There was also the strange experience of the Magnolia tree. And the odd shadows that seemed to travel with her. As though she had been marked. 
    The lightening was crashing and wind howling all around him as he dashed out the front door. It was now eight o'clock and the storm was at its peak. As he crossed to the Carriage House where the other horses were stalled, he wondered if he’d ever see his beloved cousin or Poulka again. He worked quickly and expertly as he readied one of the quarter horses for his ride. He mounted “Chambris” The Dappled Gray, and started off to ride in search of Marion, but as they exited the stalls of the Carriage House, a bolt of lightning so strong hit the large Magnolia on the front lawn and split the tree in two. The bleak sky at that same instant illuminated everything across the grounds, and he saw under what remained of the tree; his beloved horse, The Morgan, Poulka. 
    He quickly dismounted and ran to the animal, which was lathered and saw that the carriage that had contained his cousin; was in pieces. Shaking with fear for the worst, he unhitched the heavy bridle and freed the animal. He thought it best to bring Poulka back to the safety of the stall and use Chambris to ride and begin the search for Marion once again. But Poulka had other ideas. He whinnied and reared as Johnathan tried to lead him to safety. 
    “What is it boy, do you know where she is? Can you show me?” The horse reared back up on his hind legs, his fierce dark eyes alive and shimmering like fire in desolate pools of black oil, as another bolt of lightening crashed around them. Johnathan shouted above the winds howl, “Take me to her, Poulka…take me to Marion!” And Poulka was more than happy to oblige his master. He took off down the shadowy road as the storm began to dissipate and the clouds began to drift away exposing the stars in the heavens. Johnathan mounted Chambris and rode hard after the Morgan. Down the main lane and into the hills he rode at the gallop following Poulka, all the while praying fervently that he was not too late.  Johnathan rode on for at least another hour after Poulka when he suddenly saw a bend up ahead in the road and the Morgan disappeared.  

 

 

   

   After what seem as an eternity Marion slowly opened her eyes. She was no longer in the hallway. The beautiful Conservatory materialized about her in all its Victorian finery. Marion quivered and shook off her moment of insanity and relaxed a bit for the hideous clutching pain was gone. She felt light and airy as she glided about the Conservatory recognizing both new and old friends from days gone by. One by one they came and introduced themselves and bid her welcome. When they told her their names, she recognized them immediately from small cemetery, which lies out a few yards from the fork in the road that led her here.
     “We bid you welcome”, Gladys Hardsletdy said the town’s librarian who had disappeared two years before without a trace.
     “There are many of us here, most of whom you already know,” Fanny Godrother told her. Fanny was the mayor’s daughter who supposedly ran off with someone by the name of “James” last Halloween. A short stocky mustached young man stood behind and smiled.  Indeed this all seemed far too true not to be real… 
 Then Marion felt it. Something familiar and oddly warm against her cheek, and turned to see George Crabtree calmly leaning against the wall in full Scot’s regalia, with her silver flask in his hand and a twinkle in his deep blue eyes.
   “Thank’ye for the flowers, Lass. I've placed them in our bed chamber," he said in a husky whisper. "…’Twas charmin’ to be remembered...but then, Love, I ha’ ne’r forgotten you since the night we met. Aye, Pet, 'tis true. Do ya' no recall the last words I wrote to you? "Time nor seas shall ‘ne part us again!” And he moved slowly toward Marion and touched her cheek with a deep chuckle. She could see herself reflected in his eyes and feel the warmth of him all about her. “Here’s your flask, Lass. I was able to trade it for mine this evenin’. I filled it with your father’s favorite single malt. Shall we retire to the Library and have a wee dram? Any one else for some “Charades” and parlor games?" George asked the crowd that was forming around them, but his glance never left hers. "Shall we, my dear?” He said as he gazed deeply into her eyes, and offering his arm, together they glided through the closed door of the Conservatory, down across the hall and into the Library.
 

 

 

 

   Epilogue:


 As Johnathan rounded the turn he stopped suddenly for there was Poulka standing in the moonlight. “This is the shortcut to Moon Hollow Lake.” Johnathan thought.  A soft breeze was gently blowing through the horse’s dark brown mane. Johnathan once again dismounted and walked toward his beloved pet. “What is it, boy? What is this place?” The full moon had risen high in the night sky and all traces of the storm had passed. Johnathan knew that he was too late. Full of apprehension and the sorrowful knowledge of what was to come, he walked toward the Morgan and he saw a small cemetery surrounded by a wrought iron filigree gate, which was decorated with wreaths of fragrant laurel festooned with black and violet ribbons. He had never noticed it before, although he had many travels on this road and stared at the wonderment of its existence for a while if only to comprehend it. The archway of the iron enclosure read “Catafalque”, a name that he thought was hauntingly familiar to him, but could not recall where he had heard it before.
   It was superbly and meticulously kept, headstones in rows all straight and polished. Wildflowers grew on each and every resting place with the exception of one very large burial plot, which overlooked the lake in the far corner of the graveyard by a large neatly trimmed Weeping Willow. The grave still had the scent of freshly interned earth.  He entered inside the gate compelled by an unbelievable force. The moon shone brightly as it cast its beams upon the single massive headstone. As he drew towards the double grave that was unadorned with flowers, he recoiled in recognition and dropped to his knees in horror as he read the names upon that newly engraved marker. And the tears flowed freely from his eyes.
    For it was clearly inscribed: "George L Crabtree, ESQ." and "Marion Elizabeth MacKenna". And there on the soft ground, in the center of the fresh earthen plot was the Sapphire Blue Silk Bonnet, which he had given to Marion and entwined within its ribbons was a Silver double spouted Flagon with the Crest of Cambridge emblazoned on the face of the flask and the name “Crabtree” engraved below.

 

The Outing to Catafalque is soon to be part of a collection of poems and short stories.

 The working title is  The 13 Stories

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